Ten years later, Spelunky still sits atop roguelike mountain
It's impressive when a game can withstand the test of time over the course of a decade. It's even more impressive — and kind of amazing and awe-inspiring, even — when a game can stand tall atop its genre's mountaintop for that long. Spelunky, created in 2008 by Derek Yu and released as a freeware PC title, isn't just an ambitious throwback to the NES era — it's a high-quality platformer that inspired the revival of the roguelike genre and to this very day remains that genre's benchmark by which all other games are measured.
Rise of the Indies
By now, most people know the stories behind Braid and Super Meat Boy. Before people started paying money for high-quality indies, though, smaller studios were releasing their passion projects for free on the Internet. Games like Cave Story (2004) and La-Mulana (2005) were special because their developers weren't charging a cent for what was a full-fledged experience. Spelunky was another such game. Derek Yu released the game in 2008, but like any grassroots creation, he couldn't have possibly known just how big his little game would become.
Inspired by the games he enjoyed, Derek Yu's Spelunky was a true love letter to old school games — but it was also much, much more than that. Here was a game that pushed players to try their hardest every single time … because if your little Indiana Jones hat-wearing spelunker met a fateful end, that was it. Game over. No checkpoints. No respawns. Just good old-fashioned game-ending, back-to-the-start-with-ya tragedy. At the time, that style of game, the roguelike, hadn't been seen in years. It was cruel, but it sparked interest in critics, retro-enthusiasts, and folks looking for something different.
Game Over? Preposterous!
In 2008, it was hard to imagine a roguelike gaining much, if any, traction. By then, a lot of folks had become accustomed to what some refer to as “hand-holding” in games. Extra lives, continues, lengthy tutorials, and unlimited retries had caused a lot of players to throw caution to the wind because there was no penalty for failure. But Spelunky shocked the world and brought back the punishing no-retries element that was prevalent in old school games. And to top it all off, the actual progression through the game's world was already quite challenging.
Even despite the high barrier for entry, Spelunky resonated with a lot of people, and it gained a huge following. I didn't play the game until around 2010, but when I did, I was absolutely captivated by its premise. My first console was a NES, and Spelunky was like the NES game I always wanted on Nintendo's debut console. It was brutal, and I knew I would never get too far, but I was certain I would have a good time with every single play session.
Remaking a Modern Classic
I can't tell you how many hours I've logged into Spelunky on my old desktop PC or, more recently, on my PlayStation Vita. That's a testament not to how addictive the game is, but rather how much it entices players to keep coming back for more punishment. That's because it's a very rewarding game despite its devilish nature — or possibly because of it. It'll punish you, but it'll also make you a better player with every session.
That type of smart game design is what made Spelunky such a fan-favorite that it was eventually remastered and re-released on home platforms and handhelds. It all came full circle, and Derek Yu's freeware project began to bring him some much-deserved revenue. It was much-deserved because of the hard work put behind it and because it was a product worth paying cash for.
Of course, the freeware version and its source code are still available, so folks can still play the game for free and create their own mods if they so choose. The fact that Derek Yu is still allowing people to download his game for free legally is even more reason to warrant dropping a few coins for an actual purchase.
Revitalizing a Genre
It's impossible to say that one game alone revived an entire genre, but you could say that Spelunky provided an inspiring nudge for developers looking to create their own roguelikes. FTL, Darkest Dungeon, The Binding of Isaac, and Rogue Legacy (one of my all-time favorites) are all unique from one another, but they're inspired by the classic roguelike style that Spelunky played a big part in reviving and popularizing.
Hell, if we want to get super contextual, the argument can be made that Fortnite Battle Royale is a roguelike. I mean, yes, it's a battle royale third-person world-building shooter. But it's also kinda-sorta a roguelike. Did Spelunky directly influence Fortnite Battle Royale? No, but the latter still has elements of a genre that's been around since the '80s and that Spelunky played a big role in bringing back in a big way.
Spelunky 2 is probably the most exciting indie game announcements since the ill-fated Fez 2. Sequels aside, though, it's been incredible seeing the roguelike grow and evolve over the last 10 years. Witnessing newer studios experimenting with the genre and releasing winners like Crypt of the Necrodancer and Dead Cells that take the roguelike concept in wild new directions has been a hell of a lot of fun, and we're bound to only see more growth in this scrappy genre.
Through all of that, though, there will always be Spelunky. It's not exactly the game that started it all, but it's sure as heck the game that shined a massive spotlight on a genre none of us knew we'd been missing all these years.